“Leadership” is a concept heavy-laden with experiences of mentors, meetings, pastors, employers, and others who have gone awry. In the Religious Society of Friends, with its theology of egalitarian relations, “leadership” is a concept that is often downplayed and reduced to its least intrusive, least offensive manifestations. To me, leadership is a calling in and of itself; a field of study, requiring a hard look at oneself and a penchant for discerning how groups of people and organizations function together. It is a life-long process of paying attention to not only where the Spirit is leading this group or the other, but also paying attention to the direction the Spirit is not leading.
Many times, I have encountered comments and opinions in experiences of group cohesion and group conflict that reduces the groups’ behavior to simplistic psychological explanations for this phenomenon or that. Examples of this include: ¨S/he is just speaking out of fear¨and ¨That is just an angry person with issues¨. Groups, in and of themselves possess their own sense of personality, mission and calling that goes beyond simply that of the individuals of which the group is comprised.
Leadership involves the inclination, proclivity and desire to see beyond the bounds of what the group is discerning in efforts to guide the group beyond its current limitations. It entails the ability to see the group´s personality and tenor as more that the emotions or thoughts of any one individual. This involves being willing to stick one’s neck out, state the obvious, push and pull, gauge what impetus would work and which would not, fall, and yes, be pushed down. It involves surrounding oneself with mentors and friends that can brush one off and help one to stand again.
Much has been written about the integrity and consistency necessary to leadership, but I see these attributes as being necessary of any one involved in the work of God, and as Friends, each of us is about the work of God. Being a leader involves being trustworthy enough for those who feel vulnerable to follow one out onto thin ice anyway. Think about the leaders that surround you in your life. Who would you follow? Who knows the group well and pays attention to the group as a whole and not just smaller constituencies or individuals? Who would stay to pick you up if the plan is a bust and not flee, refusing to leave you behind, refusing to blame you for the bust? Who would celebrate with you or grieve with you? And then who would ask you to do it all over again? And to whom would you say, “Yes, I’ll give it a try again”? Those are the leaders.
April Vanlonden is a recorded minister in Western Yearly Meeting, and has served as a pastor in Indiana Yearly Meeting. With over twenty-five years of experience serving in the non-profit sector in a variety of leadership positions, she presently serves as Director of Academic Services at Earlham School of Religion and Bethany Theological Seminary.